St. Francis Farm’s mission is to live a sustainable life based on the Gospels and on Catholic Worker principles as an alternative to the consumer culture. It’s uncomfortable to invoke the Gospels now, not because Christians are being persecuted, but because Christianity is being publicly invoked by powerful people across the theological spectrum to justify the worst excesses of the consumer culture and to attack people who are already struggling.
President Trump has brought a new prominence to what its detractors call the Prosperity Gospel. Paula White, head of his evangelical advisory committee, urged people to offer their first day, week or month’s worth of earnings in the New Year to God (by donating them to her ministry), promising those who obeyed that their prosperity and power would have life and be resurrected. Joel Osteen, who has praised the President, told Oprah “There’s a belief that... you’re supposed to be poor and you’re supposed to show your humility. I don’t see the Bible that way... Jesus died that we might live an abundant life... I can’t be a big blessing to other people if I’m poor.” This Gospel says that God’s taking care of everything. The world is just. Faith and goodness lead to wealth and success. All we have to do is enjoy what’s ours. The stuff we consume comes from God, who wants us to have it. We don’t have to consider how our wealth is related to other people’s poverty or how our consumption affects the created world. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said “The biblical world view... is that we have a responsibility to manage and cultivate, harvest the natural resources that we've been blessed with to truly bless our fellow mankind,” and contrasted this to the godless Left who want to refrain from using what is obviously ours. He advocates extracting fossil fuels as fast as we can and removing safety standards. This ignores the Biblical assertion that the earth is the Lord’s, and that the Lord created all living creatures, blessed them and called them good.
Another problematic version of Christianity is proclaimed by people with a very different view of the world. Some of these call themselves the Church Militant, wresting the phrase away from its original sense. They don’t believe that the world is safe and just. They believe that our cherished traditions are being attacked by the Powers of Darkness. The self-styled Church Militant group’s stated mission is to fight the devil and spread the true (Catholic) faith: “Christians were born for combat,” they write. The balance of stories on their site suggests the Devil is chiefly at work in LGBT people, Muslims and immigrants, and God wants us to exclude those people and all those who defend them. President Trump’s booster Steve Bannon proclaims a similar message, arguing that “the Judeo-Christian West is in a crisis” in which capitalism, national heritage and Christianity are under attack. Commentator Pat Buchanan expands on this: “The European and Christian core of our country is shrinking... America is locked in a cultural war for the soul of our country.” He sees this war going on elsewhere in the world as well, saying “Poles fall on their knees to pray to the Virgin Mary to spare them from threats of an Islamic future,” and describing the arrival of Muslim refugees as “the invasion of the continent along the routes whence the invaders came centuries ago.” Evangelical Franklin Graham says that care for refugees isn’t a biblical issue, and that Christians must guard against Muslims infiltrating and taking over our Christian nation. They ignore how Muslim immigrants help their Christian neighbors, how both great harm and great good have been done in the name of Christianity and also in the name of Islam, and how our nation’s violence and greed contribute to the violence refugees flee. They also ignore Biblical accounts of how Jesus and his parents were refugees, and how Jesus’ death was sought by religious leaders trying to protect the purity and safety of their institutions.
The militant gospel and the prosperity gospel glorify people in power. White says that God raises up leaders, and that God will silence every tongue that speaks against his chosen leader Donald Trump. Graham says that authority is ordained by God and should not be questioned, and that Black Lives Matter protesters are disrespecting God’s authority by failing to submit unquestioningly to the police. They correctly quote Romans 13 and other passages. They ignore Jesus’ and Paul’s deaths at the hands of the Roman authorities, Moses’ example of civil disobedience, and the prophets’ example of challenging rulers.
The Prosperity Gospel and the militant Gospel give different accounts of poverty, but they unite in glorifying wealth. Osteen says that faith brings wealth and people stay poor because they haven’t learned to have real faith and claim God’s blessings. In this version of reality, structural injustice is irrelevant. Poor people will get rich if they ask God in the right way; the rest of us aren’t responsible for them. Christians from many denominations claim that wealth comes from good character and positive attitudes, while poverty comes from bad character and defeatism. From there it’s a very short step to saying that we shouldn’t help people in need because they’ve brought their troubles on themselves. Some Christians quote “He that works not shall not eat,” ignoring what Jesus said about coming to us in the hungry (and also ignoring the fact that some people work hard but don’t earn enough to live on). Bannon explains that capitalism and Christianity naturally work together for the divine purpose of creating wealth; he ignores “Woe unto you who are rich...” He and Buchanan express concern for poor white Christians born in the US and say that we must help them—by excluding poor people of other faiths and ethnic groups who might compete with native-born Christian whites for jobs. Apparently poor people of non-European descent (like Jesus) and people born outside the US (like Jesus) are not our responsibility.
At bottom, the ‘good news’ of both theologies seems to be that God wants us to preserve our power, possessions and privileges. The Prosperity Gospel urges us to revel in our personal good fortune. The militant gospel urges us to band together with People Like Us to preserve our privileges against vulnerable people who are Not Like Us.
But I believe that Jesus’ words and life call us to let go of our possessions and privileges. To give freely. To see God in neighbors and strangers. To acknowledge and remedy our own harmdoing before we try to correct others. To love and forgive enemies. To die to ourselves. The good news I believe is that God loves us and God remains in us and with us, always. This means that Christ lives, suffers and dies in every person hurt by our injustices. It also means that Christ lives in us, bringing strength and compassion in our sufferings, bringing the chance of repentance and forgiveness in our wrongdoing, bringing joy.
This Gospel is still proclaimed across the same wide range of traditions as the Prosperity Gospel and the Militant Gospel. Pope Francis wrote in The Joy of the Gospel, “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills... To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own,” and in The Church of Mercy, “Ours is not a joy born of having many possessions, but of having encountered a Person: Jesus, in our midst.” Evangelical public theologian Jim Wallis writes, “Where is Jesus in your celebration of a ban that denies shelter to refugees and rejects our Muslim neighbors around the world...? Jesus taught us that when we welcome the stranger, we are also welcoming him (Matthew 25), and the Bible tells us that in the Spirit all divisions are conquered (1 Corinthians 12),” and also “When the voice of God is invoked on behalf of those who have no voice, it is time to listen. But when the name of God is used to benefit the interests of those who are speaking, it is time to be very careful.” Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “Our God is a God who has a bias for the weak, and we who worship this God, who have to reflect the character of this God, have no option but to have a like special concern for those who are pushed to the edges of society...We must be where Jesus would be, this one who was vilified for being the friend of sinners,” and “When we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate. When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity in others.”